When Rachel Thorn’s Pharr Road condo caught fire in 2016, all five fire stations in Buckhead’s Battalion 6 responded. Firefighters couldn’t save her life, but they bought her precious time.

“They ran into a burning building, ran up two flights of steps wearing 75 pounds of gear,” recalled her mother, Elizabeth Gill. “She lived for a few hours, long enough to say goodbye.”

Gill was grateful for that help, and with her experience as a former president of the Buckhead Business Association and the Rotary Club of Buckhead, she wondered whether there was something she could do for firefighters in return. In an era of aging stations and tight salary budgets, it turns out the answer was a lot. Now she’s helping Buckhead to spark what the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation hopes is a citywide push to adopt stations and improve their conditions.

Gill joined Rotary Club members on a tour of the local stations. “I was just appalled by the condition… shocked and appalled,” she said, recalling cabinets without doors and “furniture you wouldn’t put in your basement on a bet.” And firefighters on 24-hour shifts are left paying out of their own pockets for their meals and their internet service.

From left, Atlanta Fire Rescue Battalion 6 Chief Michelle Middlebrooks tries out one of the recliners contributed to four local stations by Havertys at Station 21 on Roswell Road while joined by Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell, Rawson Haverty Jr. of Havertys, and Elizabeth Gill of the Rotary Club of Buckhead. (Special)

City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit of Buckhead’s District 8 said there is a revival of longstanding neighborhood concerns about the local stations, some of which date to the 1950s. He got Renew Atlanta bond money earmarked for renovations of Fire Station 26 on Howell Mill Road, which were completed in December, and Fire Station 27 on Northside Drive, where renovations are likely to begin by spring.

“I’m focused… on public safety and making sure we take care of the people who take care of us,” said Matzigkeit.

But some of that is more like Band-Aids at the moment. Matzkigkeit said the quarter-million-dollar interior renovation of Station 26 only made it “slightly better than my fraternity house.” He has called for the station to be replaced – as a Fire Rescue Department capital improvement plan also did more than six years ago, at an estimated cost of around $4 million.

Station 27 was on that department replacement list, too. More than 11 years ago, Buckhead residents disturbed by the condition of the 1950s-era station raised $250,000 to upgrade its living quarters. The $300,000 renovation coming this year is targeted mostly at exterior basics like accessibility for people with disabilities and water-sealing.

Of the stations in the Buckhead battalion, only Station 3 at Phipps Plaza is brand new, rebuilt in 2018 as part of a mall renovation. Besides fixing up older facilities, Matzigkeit also has called for the revival of an old department plan for a new fire station at Peachtree Road and Peachtree Battle Avenue.

City funds provide the buildings, the firefighter salaries, and the gear – including a new engine and ladder at Station 26 and a new engine at Station 27, both added last year. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms instituted a firefighter pay raise that took effect Jan. 31 amid concerns about recruitment and retention.

But firefighters still have to pay for their meals and virtually all station amenities out of those salaries or assistance from the Fire Rescue Foundation.

“They have to pay for their own Wi-Fi,” said Gill. “If they want any meal, they have to pay for it… It is just a bad situation.”

She found that most of the firefighters’ needs are “really not sexy,” like industrial washing machines to get dangerous chemicals out of their clothes. Some are basics, like pots and silverware. “Just things we all have 14 extra of and they have none of,” she said.

In 2019, with Gill’s activism, the Rotary Club pledged to give $75,000 over the next three years to the Fire Rescue Foundation for Buckhead station amenities. It’s part of the foundation’s “Adopt A Fire Station” program, which currently has drawn support for eight of the department’s 36 stations.

Shirley Anne Smith, head of the foundation, said the program “offers the community an opportunity to make an impact not only in the city and in their respective neighborhoods, but it also creates a culture of appreciation for our city’s first responders.”

Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell joined in late last year, working with Rawson Haverty Jr. of the Havertys furniture company to donate recliners to each of the four stations within Buckhead proper.

The stations have other needs and desires for comfort items, too. Gill put together a wish list from the five stations, which she recently circulated to the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods. It contains some big-ticket items, like a 60-inch TV and a refrigerator. But there are a lot of household basics, like bowls, window blinds, and coffee and cups to drink it from.

Gill said some minor items can simply be brought to a local station. The foundation urges people to give through its donation system, to make sure stations need the items and because major donations need to be approved by City Council resolution under the law, among other reasons. The foundation has a donation page at atlfrf.org/adoptafirestation.

Buckhead Battalion Fire Stations

Station 3
800 Longleaf Drive, Phipps Plaza

Station 21
3201 Roswell Road

Station 26
2970 Howell Mill Road

Station 27
4260 Northside Drive

Station 29
2167 Monroe Drive

Station Wish Lists

The following are local fire station wish-list items compiled by Elizabeth Gill.

Station 3: Wi-Fi equipment and installation; set of steel dumbbells; butcher block knife set; silverware for 12; 12 coffee cups; dinnerware and bowls for 12

Station 21: two recliners; one desk chair; four-drawer locking file cabinet; Green Egg charcoal; extra-larger Crock-Pot; coffee; coffee cups; 4-by-6-foot American flag; 3-by-5-foot state flag; 6-inch wire wheel with 5/8-inch arbor; leaf blower; back-pack vacuum; Ping-Pong table; Home Depot gift card; soft drinks; snacks

Station 26: 60-inch TV; silverware for 12; microwave; two 42-inch TVs; heavy-duty pots and pans; sofa; window blinds; plates for 12

Station 27: King Kong 7131 grill cover for Weber Genesis II; dumbbell rack; three Amazon Fire sticks

Station 29: kitchen chairs (bar-height); large refrigerator; bench grinder with wire wheel; back-pack blower; push mower; Home Depot gift card; hand angle grinder; commercial coffee-maker and coffee; commercial-grade garden hose

Correction: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect URL for the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.